Know the drill: Practicing fire escapes at home can save lives

In this file photo, Camay Guillory, second from left, and her children look at what’s left of their rural Douglas County home after a fire destroyed the house Dec. 29, 2011. Members of the Guillory family all escaped safely from the fire, something they had practiced in their home.

When I first told my husband and children that a firefighter was coming to our house to help us conduct a fire drill, my 6-year-old daughter burst into tears.

It turns out it was not fear of her home burning, but instead fear of smoke alarm noise that set her off crying. I began to question the wisdom of my decision to do a home fire drill, but I was steadfast in my mission.

A Douglas County family’s recent fire inspired the idea for my home fire drill. During the night Dec. 30, Roger and Camay Guillory’s home in northwestern Douglas County was destroyed by fire, and all seven of the family’s nine children who were home that night got out safely. Roger Guillory and fire investigators credit Guillory’s regular home fire drills with saving everyone’s lives.

That is exactly why I asked Lawrence fire lieutenant Aaron Flory to come to my home on a recent afternoon to teach my family — myself, my husband, Lou, and our two girls, ages 4 and 6 — about fire safety and home fire drills.

“When I first started with the fire department, it was all about excitement and adrenaline. Now I know that fire is the worst thing that could ever happen to someone,” Flory said.

Knowing about the devastation a fire can cause and being able to relate it to children without scaring them is one of the keys to a successful home fire drill. Flory is a father of three girls and speaks regularly at local schools about fire safety, so I knew his approach would be one to emulate.

In case of fire

He started off by having us list the good things fire is used for. We came up with cooking, campfires, heating our water and heating our home. I could see both girls beginning to relax.

“Unfortunately, there are also bad things fire can do,” Flory explained. He kept it vague, which was just the right tone.

I was pleased to hear the girls answer Flory’s next two questions correctly. Where is the safest place to be in a fire? Outside. What is the thing in a house that tells you there might be a fire? Smoke alarms.

“Smoke detectors are the number one thing that keeps people safe from a fire,” he said. “Smoke detectors should be on every level of the house and near the sleeping areas.”

That previous statement might be the only thing I already knew about fire safety. We purchased and installed new smoke detectors the day we moved into our house, and the girls knew that as well. In fact, they dutifully informed Flory that the alarm nearest our kitchen goes off almost every time Lou cooks.

Next, we moved our conversation to the girls’ bedrooms so Flory could demonstrate what to do if there is a fire in the night. He said he focuses on practicing nighttime fire drills because it is more difficult at night than during the day to know where the fire originated and to see your way out of the house.

Our vintage 1910 house is a little unique because the girls’ bedrooms are in a finished attic. One of the rooms has a fire escape ladder built onto the side of the house. Flory recommended having the girls practice climbing down the ladder when they are a little bit older. For now, he had other suggestions.

Prairie Mulligan, 4, and her sister Arbor, 6, listen to Lt. Aaron Flory of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical talk about fire escape routes from their bedrooms, and what to do if they have to leave by a window.

Escape routes

He said that all locations where someone sleeps should have two ways out, a combination of doors or windows, ideally facing different sides of the house. He also recommends sleeping with the bedroom door shut, if the person is comfortable doing so.

“If you don’t have two ways out of where you sleep, you need to find a new place to sleep,” Flory said.

Both girls sat on the bed while Flory demonstrated how to crawl from the bed on hands and knees — stay low from the moment you smell smoke — and feel the door to see if it is hot.

He recommended using the back of the hand to feel the door, especially up high because heat rises. I had both girls kneel by the door and put the backs of their hands to it.

“If the door is hot, it’s just like there’s a scary monster Halloween costume on the other side, and you don’t want to open the door and see it,” Flory told the girls.

So we headed to the windows. It occurred to me that I didn’t even know if the girls could open the windows by themselves. So I had them both try. Success. And I showed them how to unlock the windows. Success again. My own anxiety level about their ability to respond to a fire was diminishing by the minute.

Flory emphasized that although we want to get out of the house quickly in a fire, we don’t want to do anything that might hurt us more than necessary.

“Jumping is the last option we want to do,” he said.

The first thing to do after opening the window is to yell for help. Firefighters are circling the building, looking and listening for people when they arrive at a fire.

Flory paused and looked at the girls and asked, “If there’s a fire, should you go look for your sister?” Both girls answered “no,” but with a bit of hesitation (they are very close). So I interrupted and reiterated, “Did you hear that? Don’t look for your sister.”

Window screens that are sticky or have latches can be tricky for children to remove. Pushing the screen out could result in the child falling out the window. So, Flory had each girl find something in her room that she could throw against the screen to break it out. Both located small wooden stools to do the job.

Flory made it clear that regardless of whether they can get the screen off, staying by the window is one of the best places to be, even if it is getting difficult to breathe. There is fresh air there, and moreover firefighters will get ladders to windows very quickly, and they can rescue people most easily if they are right next to the window.

The girls had both been troopers up to this point, answering questions and hanging on every word Flory said. But right around the time we were talking about finding an object to break the screen, I saw my 6-year-old twisting her face around to keep from crying. The thought of losing her beautiful stool was almost too much to take at that moment. I gave her a hug and reminded her that this is just in case. I will discuss materialism with her at another juncture.

Back at the window, Flory told the girls that if they absolutely need to get out of the house, the best way to go through the window is to sit and straddle the sill, lower themselves down slowly until they are hanging by their fingertips, drop to the porch roof below.

Know the drill

Just being outside is not the end. There is one more very important step: going to the meeting place. Every household should choose a meeting place somewhere not too far away: a mailbox or tree in the yard or any landmark close by.

We went outside and chose a large redbud tree in front of the house. Flory told the girls to stay at the meeting place, even if they are the only one there at first. That was a good message for each of us — I could see having a very hard time sitting at that tree all by myself.

That redbud tree, now deemed the meeting place, is where we wrapped up our time with Flory. The girls showed no signs of trauma after talking about a potentially traumatic event, and I feel much more comfortable about our family’s ability to respond to a fire, should we need to.

Do try this at home.